Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 1:46-55

Other texts:

These verses are an optional part of the Gospel for 4 Advent C.


August 15 is Festival of Mary, Mother of our Lord. Martin Luther had many good things to say about Magnificat in an exposition "To his Serene Highness, Prince John Frederick, duke of Saxony, Landgrave of Thuringia, Margrave of Meissen, my Gracious Lord and Patron" (Luther's Works, Volume 21). After 15 pages of exposition, Luther writes concerning v. 48:

Now, we described above at length how lowly was the estate of this tender Virgin and how unexpectedly this honor came to her, that God should regard her in such abundant grace. Hence she does not glory in her worthiness nor yet in her unworthiness, but solely in the divine regard, which is so exceedingly good and gracious that he deigned to look upon such a lowly maiden, and to look upon her in so glorious and honorable a fashion. They, therefore, do her an injustice who hold that she gloried, not indeed in her virginity, but in her humility. She gloried neither in the one nor in the other, but only in the gracious regard of God. Hence the stress lies not on the word "low estate," but on the word "regarded." For not her humility but God's regard is to be praised. When a prince takes a poor beggar by the hand, it is not the beggar's lowliness but the prince's grace and goodness that is to be commended. [p. 314]

Luther presents Mary as an example and teacher and writes about the proper way to honor her.

...the masters who so depict and portray the blessed Virgin that there is found in her nothing to be despised, but only great and lofty things -- what are they doing but contrasting us with her instead of her with God? Thus they make us timid and afraid and hide the Virgin's comfortable picture, as the images are covered over in Lent. For they deprive us of her example, from which we might take comfort; they make an exception of her and set her above all examples. But she should be, and herself gladly would be, the foremost example of the grace of God, to incite all the world to trust in this grace and to love and praise it, so that through her the hearts of all men should be filled with such knowledge of god that they might confidently say: "O Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, what great comfort God has shown us in you, by so graciously regarding your unworthiness and low estate. This encourages us to believe that henceforth he will not despise us poor and lowly ones, but graciously regard us also, according to your example. [p. 323]


Luke has carefully crafted the opening chapter of his gospel. 1:1-4 sets forth the purpose of the entire Gospel and the book of Acts that follows. The only time these verses are looked at in our Lutheran Lectionary is on the Festival of St. Luke (October 18), but they should always be kept in mind when studying this Gospel.

Next comes parallel annunciation stories to Zechariah (1:5-25) and Mary (1:26-38). Richard Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) states rather forcefully, "Luke intends that we catch the fullness of his meaning by hearing these stories together! What Luke has joined together no lectionary system should rend asunder!" [p. 23]


One of the themes from this larger context that Jensen presents is that of faith.

Zechariah has heard the word of the angel and has not believed it. He wants proof. He wants to know. Unfaith always wants to know. But the angel of God is not about knowing. The angel calls for faith and punishes Zechariah for his lack of faith. "Because you did not believe my will become mute..." (v. 20). And it was so. Zechariah stands before us as a model of a person of unfaith.

Many, on the other hand, stands before us as the model of faith! The contrast between Zechariah and Mary is stark. He is a priest of the highest order in Israel. Yet he does not believe. She is a common peasant woman. But she believes! She is all that Zechariah is not. [p. 24]

And later Jensen writes:

And Mary believed the words of promise. Gabriel had scolded Zechariah because he did not believe the words of promise. Zechariah is the model of unfaith. Mary models faith. "Here am I," she says, "the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (1:38). Faith has everything to do with hearing the promised word of God and trusting that word. That's a simple yet profound understanding of faith!

...To hear Mary's story...without hearing also Zechariah's story, is to miss a wonderful homiletical opportunity! These stories belong together. [p. 25]

Jensen presents the following homiletical direction concerning this theme:

Having told these two stories so that they properly stand in contrast with each other, we are immediately tempted to leap to judgment. "Don't be like Zechariah!" we would like to shout out. "Be like Mary." It is always tempting to preach the Law in such fashion.

But it really doesn't work that way in these stories. In the first place, we are all quite obviously more like Zechariah than we are like Mary. In the second place, we have not as yet heeded the whole story of Zechariah. Yes, he became mute. But his inability to speak was limited in scope. Once the child was born, Zechariah got it! His tongue was set loose and he blessed God (1:64), old Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and his tongue burst loose in wondrous song....

Zechariah, too, comes to faith in God's promise! His faith timetable is just a little slower than Mary's! Remind you of anyone? The proclamation for this sermon might go like this. God is the speaker. God says: "I am a God who makes promises. I am a God who keeps promises. I made a promise to Zechariah. Zechariah, like many of you, was slow to believe. But I kept my promise! I made a promise to Mary. She got it immediately and trusted the word of promise. I kept my promise to Mary, as well. In Jesus Christ, the Son to be born, I make a promise to you. Some of you will get it right away. Some of you might ponder the matter for some time. But never fear. I am a God who makes promises. I am a God who keeps promises. I will keep my Christ-promise to you." [pp. 27-8]


"On that day" and "with haste" indicate the immediacy of Mary's trip after hearing the angel's message, Mary goes to Elizabeth presumably to confirm the angel's word about Elizabeth's pregnancy and perhaps share in her joy. It could be understood as a sign of Mary's faith -- "I'm going to see what God has done with Elizabeth" or a testing of the angel's message -- "I'm going to see if what the angel said about Elizabeth is true."

Perhaps it was obvious to Mary when she entered the room that what the angel had told her about Elizabeth was true.

It also became obvious to Elizabeth that there was something special about Mary and the baby she was carrying. Her knowledge didn't come from an angel, but from a kick in her womb!

On one hand, this might be a fulfillment of the prophecy that the angel told Zechariah about his son: "Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit" (1:15b). The unborn John is presented as recognizing something about the unborn Jesus. In fact, Martin Luther uses this event to talk about "infant faith." I don't remember where I've read it in his writings, but I remember reading it. Is that an argument that can be used against those who claim babies should be baptized (or communed) because they don't have faith?

On the other hand, the movement in the womb requires some interpretation. The word for "leap" (skirteo) in the NT is used only in Luke. Twice in reference to John's "leaping" in the womb (1:41, 44) and once in reference to Luke's beatitude about persecution. "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven" (6:23ab). The same word is used in the LXX at Genesis 25:22 about the twins struggling together in the womb.

Is there really any difference between a "kick" in the womb or twins "struggling" in the womb and a "leap for joy" in the womb? It all depends on how one interprets the actions. Certainly in this text Elizabeth is able to correctly interpret the movement within her because she has been filled with the Holy Spirit.

How often are we put in a position to offer a Christ-centered interpretation of events that happen? Was it just circumstances? Was God involved? Should we say, "You were sure lucky!" or "Blessed be God!"? There is a danger in assuming that we might know what God is doing, but there is also a danger of discounting God's activities in our lives. It has been suggested that many if not most American Christians are functional atheists -- they live or function (or we can also say, interpret the events in their lives) as if there were no God.

While I don't want to limit the activities of the Spirit, frequently in Luke/Acts being filled with the Spirit resulted in a speech (quite a contrast to what happened to Zechariah).

In contrast, Ananias is filled with Satan and lies to the Holy Spirit (Ac 5:3)


There are times when a text should be shouted. That is what Elizabeth does. Could we "cried out" (anaphoneo) with a "loud shout" (krauge megale) these words of praise to Mary? "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."

Why is Mary blessed/praised?

"She is the mother of the Lord." This is what sets Mary apart from all other believers. At the same time, I'm not sure how many of us would be praising/blessing a 12 or 13-year-old unmarried girl whom we discover is pregnant. It is likely that these words of praise come more from the confessions of the early church than a song from Elizabeth.

"She has come to Elizabeth." Elizabeth's joy at her own pregnancy after so many years of barrenness is overshadowed by the joy at Mary's visit -- or rather that the unborn Lord would honor her with his presence. How wonderful it would be if we had that same attitude concerning the presence of our Lord in the Word, in our gathering together, and in the Supper.

"She believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." The word for "blessed" in v. 45 is makaria, which carries more the idea of being happy because of favorable circumstances. A verbal form of this noun is used in v. 48. As the mother of the Lord, Mary is unique. As one who believes that God's Word will be fulfilled, she is a model for us all.

MARY'S SONG (Luke 1:46-55)

Jensen makes the bold statement: "It could be said that the entire Gospel of Luke is a commentary on this song!" [p. 25]

There are some arguments and variant readings that have Elizabeth singing this song (see Danker, Jesus and the New Age). Although some lines seem to better fit Elizabeth, I will not take that approach.

It is likely that this was an already composed hymn (based somewhat on Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10), that Luke imported into his narrative. Many of our Christmas pageants do the same thing -- insert traditional and familiar hymns into a narrative where they may add to the story. Parts of the hymn may fit very well while other sections don't. Originally this song was probably sung by neither Mary or Elizabeth.

In contrast to Zechariah who is mute because of his unbelief, Mary sings this wonderful song.

While Elizabeth had praised Mary, Mary praises God. Perhaps a good model for us when we are praised by others.

What she has heard and believed about herself, she also believes about the whole world. The verbs are aorist tense -- usually designated action that happened in the past! This is striking because the societal reversals that Mary talks about have not happened; but she talks about them as if they were a done deal. One way of interpreting this is that the past tense expresses the confidence and the certainty that God will do what God has promised. We live as if it were already so. A definition of "belief" that I use in confirmation classes is "to think and act as if something were true -- whether or not it can be proven." Perhaps that is what the past tense verbs in this song indicate. How should we live today as if the promised future were already present? What differences should it make in our lives today if we believe that God promises will happen?

The song is generally divided into two strophes: vv. 46-49, which center on what God has done for Mary and vv. 50-55, which center on what God will do in society. As Tannehill (Luke) states:

When we consider the two parts of the Magnificat together, we see that a parallel is suggested between God's powerful mercy for one lowly girl and the way that God acts throughout time and society. Mary's story is presented as the emblem of a much larger experience and expectation. The Magnificat encourages faith that God can and will intervene for the rest of the poor and not merely for Mary.

The song begins with parallel statements about praising God with her whole being (v. 47).

Then there are two verses of reasons why she praises God. Both verses begin with "hoti" = "because" in this context. The reasons center on what the mighty (dynatos) God has done for her -- a lowly or humble (tapeinosis) servant.

NOTE that there is nothing specific mentioned about what God had done for this lowly servant. We know about the angel's visit and the annunciation of the special conception and child to be born to her, but that is not present in the song. The only connection to what has gone on before is the statement about Mary being "blessed" -- which Elizabeth had done earlier in our text.

In the first part, Mary indicates that God has done (poieo) great things for her. In the second part, she indicates that what God has done (poieo) with the strength of his arm is not so pleasant for the "proud in the thoughts of their hearts" (v. 51).

In the first part, Mary described herself as a lowly one (tapeinosis) whom God has looked on. In the second part, Mary expects God to lift up all the lowly (tapeinos). She also expects God to pull down the "powerful ones" (dynastes) -- those who may be trying to usurp God's rightful place as "The Powerful One" (dynatos v. 49).

The reversals that God will bring about continue into the economic realm. The hungry will become "the haves" and the rich will become "the have nots".

Does "helping Israel" and "remembering his mercy" also constitute part of the reversal? Had God "forgotten mercy" or taken it away for a while? (We have this image of God in Romans 1. God takes away his presence and lets human evil take over -- vv. 24, 26, 28.) Tiede (Luke) adds some historical relevancy to these statements about Israel:

The audacity of these words is already stunning when the awesome power of the Roman Empire is considered. Next to that, the kingdom of Jesus which Mary and Luke and the early Christian community announced appears insignificant. And what if Israel has already been decimated in the war with Rome and the temple and holy city of Jerusalem lie in ashes when Luke tells the story? Then Mary's assurance that this pregnancy marks God's renewal or restoration of Israel's peculiar election is either preposterous or profound. [p. 57]

Perhaps the "rulers" that God brought down is specifically directed to the Roman authorities.

Finally, verse 55 leads us back to the theme of believing God's word. What is happening to Mary and to society began with the word God spoke to Abraham.

Tannehill (Luke) offers us a reminder that this hymn was probably not everyone's favorite song:

The Magnificat is a joyful hymn of praise, but not everyone in the Lukan audience would find it easy to rejoice with Mary. Since the Gospel of Luke addresses both rich and poor, we should assume that there were some of relative wealth and status in the audience. Mary's words are good news for the lowly and hungry, but they do not sound like good news for the powerful and rich. A person like Cornelius, for instance (Acts 10), might find Mary's words disturbing, for he was a person of power, gained through serving people still more powerful, and, at least by the end of his active service, he would be a person of some wealth. He might wonder if he is being condemned and excluded. Later he will learn that he is not being excluded, but the price of inclusion is considerable. [p. 56]

I wonder if most of us can read this without being a little concerned about our wealth and power -- as individuals, as congregations, and as a nation. Besides hearing this as a hymn of praise to God, do we not also need to hear it as a word of condemnation?

Finally, Walter Pilgrim (Good News to the Poor) tries to see the hymn from its origins:

How shall we understand the early composers and hearers of this great hymn? Where they not reflecting on their own experience of God's redemptive action in Christ and their hope in the ultimate consummation of the kingdom? Their place in society was among the little people, the insignificant, those who live frugally hoping for enough food and drink to get through the day. Yet through their faith in Jesus, the Messiah, their whole outlook and expectation had radically changed. Their insignificance no longer mattered, since they knew God through his Christ had come to their help. They were chosen for redemption and that meant that they already had gained a new sense of worth and dignity, along with a new community of loving and caring believers. But above all it meant the sure hope of God's mercy and justice in the coming age, when all the injustices and oppressions and burdens of this life would be gone. Then only good things would be theirs from the hand of God. In such a way, we think, these earliest believers grasped the message and promise of Jesus. [p. 61]

I think that what was true in the uplifting experience of the lowly and poor and hungry among the early believers, was also true among the rich. We read about the rich man who is unwilling to part with his wealth and give to the poor, and so he unable to inherit eternal life (18:18-25). We read about the rich man, who was unwilling to share with the poor and poor, hungry Lazarus and the reversals they experienced in the future life (16:19-31). But Luke also tells us about Zacchaeus who was brought down, who voluntarily gave away his wealth after his encounter with Jesus (19:1-10). I think that there were some of the rich like Zacchaeus and Cornelius who shared their wealth in godly ways. This song also expresses their experience with the God who shows might and power through mercy.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901